The Globe’s last ‘Titus Andronicus’ was a proper landmark of stage horror: Lucy Bailey’s claret-soaked 2006 production was infamous for inducing mass faintings in audiences, and was such a hard act to follow that they rather than try and top it they simply brought it back eight years later.
Finally, though, a fresh production, as Shakespeare’s horror nasty makes its debut in the indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Hip, irreverent director Jude Christian was never going to deliver a trad production, and aesthetically this is a mile away from Bailey’s: an all-female cast in uniform pyjama suits, a sterile white chemistry lab set from Rosie Elnile and Grace Venning, and – most strikingly – a zero-blood policy. Yup, there’s no fake gore, and the play’s endless string of deaths is conveyed via the theatrical snuffing out of candles rather than the cast stabbing each other up and whatnot.
The thing is, though, that ‘Titus Andronicus’ is still ‘Titus Andronicus’. Its best-known and most stomach-churning act of violence – aka The Pie Scene (no spoilers but if you know, you know) – is not in itself particularly graphic. Many of the assaults on candles here are in fact eye-watering, sadistic prolonged gougings: I felt a little faint myself in the scene where Katy Stephens’s Roman general Titus cuts off his own hand.
What Christian’s production most definitely shares with Bailey’s is the sense that, ultimately, ‘Titus Andronicus’ has to be treated as a comedy. A black comedy, for sure. But you can’t off 14 people – and, as this production very much stresses, a fly – in a variety of increasingly out-there ways and be entirely serious about it.
It gets off to a flying start: the cast singing one of cabaret legends Bourgeois & Maurice’s terrifically sardonic original songs, followed by a big hit of Lucy McCormick’s hysterically OTT, panto-villain-ish Emperor Saturninus.
It then sliiightly drifts off: the labyrinthine early plotting and myriad characters are not necessarily vastly well served by identikit costumes, uniform gender and fussing about with candles (I’d be impressed if anyone going into the play cold had a clue what was going on with the bit where two of Titus’s sons fall into a hole). Everyone is just a bit more normal, and there is a lot of setting up the second half: Stephens’s Titus is sane, level-headed and decent; only McCormick really lets rip.
But the second half is absolutely wonderful. A lot of it is simply down to the fact that that’s how ‘Titus Andronicus’ is written, with a vastly upped body count, loopier plotting and Stephens’s Titus given the opportunity finally cut loose after the general goes from boring straight man to crazed avatar of vengeance. Kibong Tanji really comes into her own as the scheming Aaron: his supervillain-style late speech is knocked out with total joyous evil abandon. But we’re also just better attuned to Christian’s production by then – I had finally got my head around who everyone was, and comic flourishes like having Beau Holland play every single supporting character really start to come into their own (particularly the pigeon-carrying clown and, of course, the fly).
Christian’s style does cushion some of the more overtly horrible stuff in the play, notably the rape and mutilation of Titus’s daughter Lavina (it’s still grim, but trust me it’s usually lot worse). However, this didn’t strike me as any sort of attempt to redeem or critique the play à la most modern productions of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ or ‘The Merchant of Venice’ – ‘Titus Andronicus’ is essentially beyond redemption. You’re committing to a certain level of depravity just by staging the thing.
As the songs make explicit, this is a production that feels celebratory of the fact that humans like telling themselves really really horrible stories. To quote the opening number: ‘after this show you’ll feel better about your terrible lives’. And I did!